A milestone in Holocaust history — compiling all the names possible of the Nazis’ Jewish victims — appears within reach as a result of the proposed allocation of $4.5 million from the Swiss bank settlement with Holocaust victims and survivors.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and research center, began the effort 60 years ago.
Wesley Fisher, executive director of the Victim List Project, which helped those who benefited from the bank settlement, said that as of the end of last year approximately 4,170,00 individual victims had been identified.
“While identification of all who died in the Holocaust is not considered possible, completion by Yad Vashem of [a] review of the relevant archived sources is expected to bring the number to close to 5 million,” he wrote in a letter to Brooklyn Federal Judge Edward Korman, who is overseeing distribution of the $1.25 billion bank settlement.
Fisher told The Jewish Week: “As you go further east, we have a smaller percentage of the names of those who died because many were just shot and there was no documentation. That does not mean it is impossible to find the names of those people, but they are not in standard historical archival material.”
Fisher sent to Korman a letter from Yad Vashem that said it foresees nearly five million names “to be the maximum number of individual names that we will be able to extract from the presently identified lists and data.”
Barring a challenge to Korman’s proposal, the allocation might be made within weeks. It is expected to take until the end of 2015 to document all the names, Fisher said.
Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, a scholar and former deputy director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., said Yad Vashem should be “congratulated on the entire project.”
“By collecting names one by one they humanize and re-identify the people who were supposed to be anonymous,” he said. “This is a monumental service to the Jewish people and to memory. It essentially defies the wishes of the Nazis that these people die without names and without any identity. If they come close to five million names it will be stupendous.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and himself a hidden child during the Holocaust, said that “if anybody thinks we will get a finite number they don’t understand the widespread murder that occurred. Jews were killed one by one. In places like the Ukraine they were killed one-on-one without the Germans keeping records.”
“The more people we can identify, the more we set for history — for memory — that they existed and perished simply because they were Jews,” Foxman added. “I’m not worried about [Holocaust] deniers. This is a sacred duty for the victims. We identify as many as we can. If they can find their names in the archives of Yad Vashem, it is a symbolic coming to kever Yisroel — a symbolic Jewish burial.”
Sara Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, said the effort “to try to name every victim is extremely important in order to honor all of the victims as individuals and to the future of the cause of Holocaust memory.”
The museum this week marked its 20th anniversary in ceremonies before more than 840 survivors and 110 World War II veterans.
Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Survivors who is now serving his third five-year term as a member of the council that overseas the Holocaust museum, said he doesn’t believe “we should be talking in terms of closure.”
“We should talk about the fact that every single name that is recovered is an identity of a murdered victim who is not lost to history, and it is important for us to remember,” he said. “In many instances, the only way their names will be written down anywhere will be in the documentation that is being gathered by the museum through the pages of testimony that is being gathered. For the vast majority, these are their tombstones. There is no other place where their memory will be recorded. …
“Every life is sacred, [and] it is of historical importance to document it. It is the single most credible proof [of what happened] — these were their names, these were the people. They were murdered.”
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist and Fordham University law professor, pointed out that the “phrase ‘the Six Million’ has always possessed talismanic significance to world Jewry. That’s because numbers have a way of being numbing, and a number that large doesn’t seem to have any real connection to human lives —especially when so many of those lives were until recently nameless. Knowing the names surely humanizes that loss.”
Foxman added that the search for Jewish Nazi victims would never really come to a close.
“We will always continue to find and identify,” he said. “This may end the organized effort, but the books will never be closed.”
The $4.5 million that Korman has proposed allocating to Yad Vashem is part of the $54.5 million earned from interest on the $1.25 billion Swiss bank settlement in 2000, virtually all of which has been distributed to qualified survivors and their heirs. Korman has proposed allocating the rest of the interest money — $50 million — to needy survivors worldwide.
But Miami attorney Sam Dubbin, who represents a group of survivors, has asked for time to consider challenging that decision in behalf of needy survivors in the U.S.
Rosenbaum explained that there are 50,000 “impoverished survivors” in the U.S. — which has the majority of survivors — and that the bulk of the $50 million is going to the needy in the former Soviet Union.
The $4.5 million to Yad Vashem would be in addition to the $10 million that Korman authorized from the Swiss bank settlement in November 2000. It was for the purpose of locating and identifying archival and testimonial sources that would contain the names of those murdered in the Holocaust and the survivors who suffered. In addition, it was used to improve access to archived material, digitize the names of those murdered and place them on the Internet.
Fisher said that Korman was “amazed” that a complete list of Holocaust survivors had not been documented. With the court’s help, however, “almost all of the archival sources for the names of those who survived have now been identified” and kept from the public for privacy reasons.
Still missing are documents pertaining to Jews who fled east into the former Soviet Union. They are now more important than ever, Fisher noted, because in negotiations with the Claims Conference last July, the German government agreed to provide about $3,300 to Nazi victims who lived in all areas of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
But to be paid, “there has to be archival proof regarding how they survived,” Fisher said.
The Russian Red Cross in Moscow has a card file on some eight million evacuees, of which about 750,000 are marked as Jewish and on which there is often more than one name. The Red Cross rebuffed earlier attempts by Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — which have been working together on archival matters — to scan the cards relating to Jews.
The Claims Conference is currently negotiating with the Red Cross to scan the cards on humanitarian grounds. Should it be refused, there are some 910,000 pages of material at alternative sites that might be scanned at a cost of about $694,400. Korman has proposed paying $650,000 of that and $250,000 for the scanning of the Russian Red Cross card catalogue.